‘Whisky Galore!’: Shipwrecks and their ‘Lost’ Cargo | History Hit
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‘Whisky Galore!’: Shipwrecks and their ‘Lost’ Cargo

Lloyds Register Foundation

29 Jun 2021

The Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s Heritage & Education Centre are the custodians to an archive collection of maritime, engineering, scientific, technological, social and economic history that stretches back to 1760. One of their largest archive collections is the ship plan and survey report collection, which numbers a colossal 1.25 million records for vessels as diverse as the Mauretania, Fullagar and Cutty Sark.

Shipwrecks form a significant part of this archive. Though tragic, they highlight the dangers of shipping and the maritime industry, particularly when the loss of a ship means the loss of its cargo.

The Lloyd’s Register Foundation have delved into their collection to provide the stories of two sunken ships whose cargo found some intriguing destinations – the RMS Magdalena and the SS Politician, the latter of which inspired the 1949 film Whisky Galore!

RMS Magdalena

The RMS Magdalena was a passenger and refrigerated cargo ship built in Belfast in 1948. Just a year later however, Magdalena was wrecked when she run aground off the coast of Brazil. Her SOS signal was received by the Brazilian navy who made attempts to re-float her, yet these were unsuccessful and she eventually sank.

Thankfully the crew and passengers were saved, as was some of her cargo mostly consisting of oranges, frozen meat, and beer. Bizarrely, most of the ship’s oranges washed up on the shores of Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, and when police patrolled the nearby area to prevent ‘pilfering’ of RMS Magdalena’s scrap, they found bottles of beer that remained unbroken!

The sinking of the RMS Magdalena, 1949.

SS Politician

One of the most famous ‘lost’ cargo stories comes from the SS Politician however. Built by the Furness Shipbuilding Company at the Haverton Hill shipyard in County Durham, Politician was completed in 1923 and started her life under the name London Merchant.

London Merchant was one of 6 sister ships that came from that yard, weighing 7,899 gross register tons and measuring 450 feet in length. Once completed she was to be engaged in the Atlantic trade and her owners, the Furness Withy Company, advertised her services in the Manchester Guardian to run between Manchester and Vancouver, Seattle, and Los Angeles.

Trading during Prohibition in the United States, she caused a brief incident in December 1924 when she docked at Portland, Oregon with a cargo stocked with whisky.

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The State Prohibition Commissioner seized the cargo despite it being sealed and having received prior approval from the federal authorities. Not one to lose his valuable cargo however, the master refused to leave the harbour without the whisky, and a formal complaint was lodged by the British Embassy at Washington. The cargo was quickly returned.

She would spend the next few years up to 1930 trading on the eastern seaboard of the US, until the Great Depression forced her owners to tie her up on the Essex River Blackwater with 60 other vessels. In May 1935, she was purchased by the Charente Steamship Co. and renamed Politician, for use between Britain and South Africa. By the outbreak of the Second World War however, she was requisitioned by the Admiralty for use on the Atlantic convoys between the UK and US.

The sinking

This is where the real story begins. SS Politician left Liverpool Docks in February 1941 where she was to travel to the far north of Scotland and join other vessels that would be convoyed across the Atlantic. Under the master Beaconsfield Worthington and a crew of 51, she was conveying a mixed cargo of cotton, biscuits, sweets, bicycles, cigarettes, pineapple chunks, and Jamaican banknotes to the value of around £3 million.

The other portion of her cargo consisted of 260,000 bottles of crated whisky from Leith and Glasgow. Leaving the Mersey for the far northern reaches of Scotland where her Atlantic convoy waited on the morning of 4th February, the SS Politician became grounded on the rocks off the East coast of Eriskay in poor weather.

The SS Politician’s accident report.

A sparsely populated island in the Outer Hebrides, Eriskay measures just over 700 hectares and at the time had a population of around 400. The rocks had breached the hull, broken the propeller shaft, and flooded some of the key areas of the ship including the engine room and the stokehold.

Worthington gave the order to abandon ship, but a lifeboat launched with 26 of the crew was soon dashed against the rocks – all survived but waited on an outcrop for rescue.

With the help of a local lifeboat and fishermen from the island, the crew of the Politician all eventually landed safely on Eriskay by 4:00pm and were billeted in people’s homes. While there however, the Politician’s sailors let slip the details of its precious cargo of whisky…

Whisky Galore!

What followed was termed the ‘wholesale rescuing’ of the whisky by the islanders, who in the dead of night retrieved the crates from the wreck. Eriskay had been hit hard by the gruelling Second World War, particularly as an island requiring most of its goods to be imported.

As such, word quickly spread about the SS Politician‘s wreckage, brimming with supplies (and luxury whisky!). Soon islanders from across the Hebrides arrived to take whisky from the wreckage, with one man reputed to have taken upwards of 1,000 crates!

This was not without difficulty however. Local customs officers set about confiscating any whisky that made it onto land, and even asked the chief salvage officer to post a guard outside the wreckage. He refused on the grounds that it may be a dangerous and pointless endeavour however.

When questioned about the legality of their actions, many of the islanders stated that since SS Politician had been abandoned, they were within their rights to retrieve its cargo. One islander aptly stated:

“when the salvors quit a ship – she’s ours”

In response to the custom officer’s checks however, the islanders began burying their loot or hiding it in discreet places, such as in rabbit holes or behind hidden panels in their homes. This in itself was risky – one man hid 46 cases in a small cave off the island of Barra, and when he returned only 4 were left!

Consisting of survey reports, ship plans, certificates, correspondence and the weird and wonderfully unexpected, the Lloyd’s Register Foundation are committed to cataloguing and digitising the ship plan and survey report collection for free open access, and are pleased to announce that over 600k of these are online and available for viewing right now.

Lloyds Register Foundation